'From us and them to we': Edmonton police unveil new Indigenous relations strategy

It hasn’t always been an easy relationship between Edmonton’s police service and the city’s Indigenous communities. Now, under its new Chief Dale McFee, the police are determined to change that — and step one is to stop making it about us and them.

‘It will be a priority of the police service and this isn't going away,’ police chief tells commission.

Andrea Levy and Chelsea Hawrelak say the new police Indigenous relations action-plan requires organizational courage. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

It hasn't always been an easy relationship between Edmonton Police Service and the city's Indigenous communities. Now, under new Chief Dale McFee, the police are determined to change that — and step one is to stop making it about "us and them."

At a police commission meeting Thursday, police signalled a willingness to take a route that requires "organization courage" and may feel uncomfortable at times, while they work with communities in entirely new ways.

"We need to change our approach and we need to be open … and going with compassion and from the heart and being comfortable with being uncomfortable in some of these community settings just to really hear them and listen," said Chelsea Hawrelak, the community operations coordinator with EPS

Presenters outlined the beginnings of an action-plan — using words like love, truth, wisdom, humility and trust — to reach a community that is "over-represented as both victims and offenders."  Under McFee's leadership, police would plan to develop a model of engagement informed by Indigenous knowledge, experts "and most importantly the community that we are serving."

Andrea Levy,  the service's Indigenous relations coordinator, said the approach would require "organizational courage to move forward in a completely new way."

"We look forward to coming back to you in the future to present an inclusive and impactful community engagement approach that will encompass both the organizations and communities needs and values and to begin changing the narrative from us and them to we. Chi-miigwech," said Levy, thanking the crowd in Ojibway.

When the presentation wrapped up, applause broke out in the room.
Police chief Dale McFee says the Indigenous relations strategy is a priority for Edmonton police. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Since 2013, Edmonton police have had a formal strategy in place to engage with Indigenous people in Edmonton. Thursday's presentation talked about enhancing what already exists but in many ways, the new strategy is a noticeable departure.

At the core, presenters said the aim is to embed a community-driven, Indigenous perspective throughout the service.

"What we want to do is really embed community as one of our core values," said Hawrelak. "So it's not just one specific unit working on it — it's our entire organization and all of our employees that are embracing what community means and how we are engaging and then they all see the value of building those relationships."

Culturally safe environment

The plan seeks to strengthen understanding among the service of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the impacts on Indigenous communities of historical trauma such as residential schools. The strategy commits to keeping police informed on issues affecting Indigenous communities, examining the internal culture and current community engagement structures, and pro-active recruiting.

"Recruitment is about going out and really engaging where people are at and not just expecting that they'll come in,"  said Levy. "We also have to make sure that we create an environment internally that is culturally safe for Indigenous perspectives and voices"

With McFee at the helm as police chief for eight years in Prince Albert, the number of Indigenous officers grew to 38 per cent. He employed less conventional recruitment strategies such as asking Indigenous leaders and elders to endorse policing.

On Thursday, Levy and Hawrelak praised their many existing partners but indicated an intention to reach out to those who may not be comfortable working with police. 

"We're not always hearing from subgroups and we need to create spaces and ways that we can hear from those voices in a manner that feels comfortable to them and not a way that necessarily works for us as a large organization," said Hawrelak.

During the meeting, McFee was unequivocal in his support for the new strategy. 

"This is now going to come under my office," McFee said. "It will be a priority of the police service and this isn't going away. This is going to go forward faster than it's ever gone forward. It will be a priority for our police service and we need to empower these young ladies to continue to charge that path forward."

If it's not a local solution at a community level and you don't have the community champion and the community leadership it dies on the sword- Police Chief Dale McFee

From the beginning of his tenure, McFee has repeatedly expressed his willingness to meet with as many communities as possible.

"If it's not a local solution at a community level and you don't have the community champion and the community leadership it dies on the sword," said McFee.

Some of the challenges faced by Indigenous Edmontonians are the same as those in the Syrian or Somali communities because of "what they're exposed to in relation to the trauma that they've suffered," McFee added.

'Does my heart good'

Before Thursday's presentation wrapped up, commissioner Karen McKenzie praised the new strategy. 

"Hiy hiy," she said, expressing her gratitude in Cree. "It does my heart good to see you both there and speaking in a new language that talks about things that matter and that bring people together.

 "It's ways that the community can be engaged to co-create some beautiful solutions that will benefit everyone."



About the Author

Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca